The Ideal Self

The Ideal Self is that perfect version of you you’ve always kept on a pedestal. It’s the image you want everyone else to see. It’s the mirror against which you compare your actual self. It’s the dream of everything you want to be on so many levels: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, material.

There’s obvious value to having an Ideal Self.

  • It establishes goals and helps you build a plan to reach them.
  • It’s something to work toward–a motivator.
  • It creates a set of standards for yourself–a litmus test to be sure your actions are in line with your values.

An older iteration of myself: when I was a teacher in Thailand (2005-06)

But the Ideal Self can also be dangerous. 

Danger #1: Your Ideal Self is a true ideal–unattainable, unrealistic.

As with any goal, it has to be something you can reach. But it’s also important to dream big, right? So there is a balance to find to pushing yourself to your greatest potential while still operating within your limits and the limits that life inevitably puts on you. If your Ideal is too grand, it becomes a weight on your shoulders that is an endless source of dissatisfaction.

So as with identifying passions, you have to sift through and recognize what is possible.

So while I'll always sing and maybe even daydream about being famous and touring around the world, I'm not going to bank on that image!

Danger #2: Your ideal self doesn’t reflect who you really are

We can lie to ourselves. Convince ourselves that something is good when it’s not. We settle, or we allow other people’s ideal for us influence our own (the classic, I became a __ because my parents wanted me to). Often times the lies are based on self-doubt. When you worry that you can’t do something, you convince yourself it’s not really what you want anyway and you go for something that seems more attainable. But it will never be satisfying because it’s not really you.

I have, since I was about 11, derived the greatest satisfaction from what I produce as a writer. But the self-doubt has been strong enough for years to push me away from pursuing writing as a career. I still struggle with it, and I kick myself for the myriad something elses I’ve tried convincing myself I’d be happy doing. But now I feel at least I’m trying. Finally. No more lies.

Danger #3: Your Ideal Self is out of date

We all grow and change. Something that was once important to us can become less so. But sometimes for nostalgic or emotional reasons we hold onto those things and they become like vestigial organs that either serve no purpose or get in the way and cause problems. Without the passion, it’s hard to keep up the practice. But if we’re still holding onto that ideal, it becomes a source of self-criticism as we struggle to meet that goal. One commenter on the habits follow-up post noted that once she became more discerning about what she really wanted to be spending her time on, she gave up old interests freeing up time for things she really wanted to do.

Danger #4: Your Ideal Self keeps you inflexible by distracting you from reality

Sometimes, we can get so stuck in our ideal and fulfilling it that we fail to recognize the good in what we already have. A number of fellow Gen Y friends have noted that they were unhappy when they started in their jobs because it wasn’t what they’d always pictured for themselves. But then at some point, they stopped and realized how good they have it. Now they are much more satisfied and motivated.

The other problem with being distracted by what you think you want is that you fail to recognize other opportunities. Life rarely unfolds according to The Plan. But as a result, it presents an endless number of possibilities we never could have foreseen, some of which will completely eclipse our Ideal. In the wise words of Ferris Bueller:


Like the dreams that never happen, the Ideal Self is still a valuable tool for self-reflection. Former ideals can reveal a lot about what is ultimately important to us. It’s those things that we should cling to–not the superficial stuff that we couch them in. When we do this, we will find that there are a number of different “life scenarios” into which our ultimate values can still fit. Having a baby, for example, won’t fundamentally change who I am–but will definitely add to the person I am now. And I anticipate it will be one of those possibilities that brings me to a life better than what I ever could have imagined for myself!

Have you ever had to shed (or at least reevaluate) an Ideal Self? 

12 responses to “The Ideal Self

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  6. I am battling with my ideal self, and a few other issues, right now and this inspired me greatly. Your whole blog has hit home with me. I will continue to follow you and thanks for sharing your life.

    • Yes, definitely! I think writing absolutely tunes you into the pitfalls of trying to adhere to some sort of ideal too strictly. The unknown is often much more fun!

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